There can be very few British children who grew up in the 60s and 70s, and beyond, for whom the work of Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate does not form a significant part of their earliest memories. Chances are, those children will never have registered those names, nor of the Smallfilms company they ran for three decades from a farm just outside Canterbury. However, if you showed them the closing credits of Pogle’s Wood, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss or the Clangers, especially if accompanied by some of the original and evocative music that accompanied each of those programmes, they would instantly be transported back to the lunchtimes and early evenings of their childhood, even without seeing the programmes themselves.
For our generation, the Smallfilms TV programmes are our childhood. We first encountered them as we Watched With Mother at lunchtime – in black and white for many of us. Then they were part of that select group of shorts that filled the precious last 15 minutes of children’s teatime TV on BBC1, just before the evening news marked the point that the television world was turned over to the grownups for the rest of the evening. For a good many, they fuelled a nostalgia boom of the 80s and 90s, as Bagpuss and Clangers merchandise became not just ironically cool, but also a reassuring link to a secure past. Students chilled out to the reruns; early VCR adopters bought the re-releases on VHS tape, then bought them all again on DVD to entertain their own children because, as soon as they went into colour, the Smallfilms programmes became timeless classics. Indeed, a well-made new series of the Clangers picks up seamlessly from where the first batch ended 40 years ago.
And all those memories have sat safely in the Firmins’ barn, where the programmes were made, until retrieved, lovingly dusted down, and presented in an exhibition currently fittingly residing at the Museum of Childhood, the V&A’s Bethnal Green outstation. It’s not a big exhibition – it didn’t take big models or vast special effects to spark the imagination of pre-schoolers in the pre-digital age – but nor does it disappoint. These were not films that benefited from hours of digital retouching or CGI, just hours and hours of painstaking stop motion photography of models and backdrops that sprang from Firmin’s creative hands and performed to Postgate’s masterful storytelling and enchanting narration. They’re all there, looking just like we remember them: Mr and Mrs Pogle, Pippin and Tog, Bagpuss, Professor Yaffle, the Mice from the Mouse Organ, all the Clangers, the Soup Dragon, the Iron Chicken – even the Froglets. In fact, the only difference is that I still remember some of them in black and white! Likewise the drawings from the 2D films – flat film tins containing the innumerable character heads, each with a slightly different expression or tilt of the head. There’s a lovely selection of ephemera as well, including an original Clangers script that proves that everything the Clangers ‘said’ was scripted before being translated to swannee whistle.
For us, the exhibition had an added personal connection as Mrs M had been to the same school as the Firmin girls, and was a classmate an older sister of Emily who featured in the Bagpuss opening credits. She’d even been to a party in the barn where the films were made (and of course wouldn’ t have dreamed of trying to make off with a Clanger). But it was clear that you didn’t need to have a personal link, or even be of the same vintage as the original films, to enjoy the exhibition. A whole new generation of fans was lapping it up alongside their parents and grandparents who watched the 405 or 625 line originals.
There’s a wealth of other material to see at the Museum of Childhood, especially for the fan of 50s and 60s ephemera. I think the Wee Beastie eventually tired of my endless cries of ‘I had one of those’, ‘I’ve got one of those’ or ‘I want one of those’ – right up to the point where she spotted some of her own childhood favourites and took up the cry herself (and, no, that giant dolls’ house won’t fit in your bedroom).
Details of the Clangers, Bagpuss & Co exhibition, which runs to 9 October, are on the Museum’s website, along with information on everything else the Museum has to offer. On your way back to the City, be sure to take in the poignant memorial to the men, women and children who lost their lives in a crush on the stairway of Bethnal Green tube station one dark and frightening night in the Blitz, or treat yourself to one of London’s most original and authentic cafes at Pellici’s – which, in true Watch With Mother tradition, I’ll tell you all about another time…